Olympics for Freelancers

Gold Silver Bronze shutterstock_29607409 (2)

Medal rankings of the why, how and who of knowings

Have you ever asked yourself whether it’s WHO you know or what you know (your “Know-HOW”) that made you a successful freelancer? Or have you actually considered taking the WHY into consideration – why do freelancers choose their careers, do they choose them at all (or is the choice made for them) and what makes them stay freelancers?

My Henley Business School MBA thesis on independent music industry professionals focussed on strategic options for freelancers (such as creating freelancer co-operatives).

It also dealt with the “intelligent career framework“, in other words, I interviewed music industry players which of the three “knowings” (why, how, whom) they considered to be the main ingredient for the recipe to success.

But first….

So what comes before the WHY?

According to the authors of a recent HBR article, the three things employees really want are

  • a career (the how)
  • a community (the whom)
  • a cause (the why)

So, you may ask, what are the three things freelancers really want?

Well, the cause in the case of freelancers can have two faces – the reason they want to be a freelancer and the reason they have actually become a freelancer.

Why (part 1): the reasons you become a freelancer aren’t always pretty

Digitisation – which obviously also affected the music industry – has led to a slump in profits for some of the bigger companies. Their reaction was a crash diet consisting of mergers, acquisitions and a big red pen. Three guesses what this did to the number of freelancers in the music industry. Exactly. Their numbers grew a lot!

Of my MBA research group, 25% mentioned redundancy or job loss as the main reason for becoming a freelancer. Despite such relatively negative triggers to their career change, not all of them considered their new workstyle as an interim solution, or a ‘stepping stone’ only back to employment. Quite a few actually began to enjoy being a “solopreneur” and reported wanting to remain self-employed. They witnessed a shift in their motivation to work and the alignment of their values with their work.

Why (part 2): Pros of being a freelancer

The major attributes listed by interviewees as the main pros of being a freelancer were:

  • Flexibility
  • Freedom
  • Autonomy
  • Independence
  • Work-life-balance
  • Choice
  • No more politics
  • No more bureaucracy
  • Control
  • Variety

What struck me in particular is that none of my respondents mentioned “getting rich” as their main motivator. Instead, being a freelancer was more a “lifestyle” than a career to them!

Why (part 3): Cons of being a freelancer

The main cons of being a freelancer lie in the insecurity and uncertainty related to issues such as the next payment, as you sometimes have to bang on your customers’ door for payment 4 months after you sent them the invoice despite a 14 day payment term. Being a freelancer isn’t as seamless as many think – the majority only see the benefits (“och, you have it well, you can go for a walk in the sunshine on a Monday, it always rains on Mondays”).

It seems there’s no sunshine without rain (or no spring without snow as the recent weeks showed), as freelancers do:

  • yearn for individualism yet they lament a lack of belonging or loneliness –Richard Branson tweeted “are we better connected but lonelier than ever?”
  • want to be independent, yet they crave a support network – many struggle without an IT helpdesk, and don’t get me started on pension, accounting or tax issues
  • enjoy their flexibility, yet wish they had more structure – this starts with simple things as having some sort of external time management or timetable to guide you through the day

As is the case with many aspects of people and careers, opportunities can also be threats and motivators (the “why”) can also become demotivators.

So what comes after the WHY?

Surely, you might argue, it doesn’t matter after a while why you became a freelancer in the first place. You are partially right as many freelancers’ entry into this world of flexibility and freedom has been involuntary.

However, there’s another side to the coin. The WHY actually continues to be important in your freelancer career as it represents your values, motivation and personality.

In my opinion (and my MBA conclusion), the WHY fully deserves a gold medal. This is due to the fact that your know HOW and know WHOM alone are not enough for success and are thus joint silver medal holders, needing the WHY as the ‘glue’. Success is more likely in the long run if you have got the drive and the passion to go ‘solo’ in the first place.

So, to answer the question from the first paragraph, what are the three things freelancers really want? Well, the first one, an in-house career that employees seek, may not be one of them for freelancers.

But it’s likely from what we have seen above that freelancers may concur with their employee counterparts on the two other things: the notion of community (belonging & networking) in terms of the WHOM and cause (motivation & values) in terms of the WHY.  And as Dorie Clark suggests in her many fabulous publications, the third one is likely to be competence (expertise & mastery), reflecting the HOW.

So how would you dish out the medals?